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Team Testing's Proper Place

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Blood_medium While the doping accusations against Leonardo Piepoli are suprising only in that they didn't happen sooner, two other recent stories have struck a blow against one of Cycling's recent, positive narratives. Frank Schleck's entanglements with Eufemiano Fuentes and Operacion Puerto have undermined Bjarne Riis' clean-team mantra, and today's announcement that Stefan Schumacher was on CERA at the Tour has sent Gerolsteiner manager Hans-Michael Holczer off on another -- and for once quite understandable -- tirade.

Not good times, of course: the implication is that if it can happen at Gerolsteiner or CSC, then perhaps there's no stopping cheating after all. But IMHO it's time for the "clean teams" mentality to change. Undoubtedly, teams which announce a bevvy of internal controls, contractual penalties, and otherwise an open insistence on their riders behaving properly is a great benefit to the sport. There is still something to be said for leadership. But I wonder whether there's anything more to a "clean team" besides leadership?

The threat-of-the-month is CERA, a low-dose EPO variant only recently discovered in sports circles. With the sport officially trying to clean up its act, the usual ways of cheating are far too well known and reviled for serious riders to pull off. If you're intent on cheating, the only way to go is with whatever new methods are emerging, that the anti-doping forces haven't caught onto yet. Stay one step ahead of the sport... or don't even bother trying.

A loose federation of teams with their own internal controls is exactly the wrong way to deal with emerging doping methods. Staying ahead of the curve requires resources. I'm not an MBA, but surely there's some sort of principle about R&D requiring investment and pooling resources. Dispersed efforts at research, uncoordinated and on the cheap, sounds inherently ineffective. So when CERA comes along, obviously even the best teams aren't going to be the first ones on the block to have the new CERA test.

Sorry to dredge this up again, but let's walk back to the first Podium Cafe Anti-Doping Manifesto:

Instead of always trying to keep up with the Ferraris and Cecchinis, here's a radical idea: hire one of them!! Why should the UCI always be the last to hear about new doping techniques? Let bygones be, and get a real expert on staff. ... [embarassing material deleted]... Anyway, in addition to staying on top of the doping R&D, presumably this guy could oversee a lot of the testing too, or at least be a consultant. And I'm not merely advocating hiring one doc; a panel of them may be needed.

It's hard to trace the sources on old posts when I didn't provide adequate links, but apparently a group of doctors are forming an association to at least talk about new ideas. Not sure where that stands. But in any event, a centralized anti-doping authority, with full independence and some measure of integrity, has a far better chance of coming up with a new CERA test than, say, Holczer's staff MDs.

As for what internal controls do, let's revisit another old 2006 post: when Bob Stapleton invented the new team concept and won me as a fan. I hypothesized (putting it kindly) that there were at least three potential benefits to internal testing and increased training coordination:

  1. It physically prevents riders from working with a doping doctor... if you're training with Dr. X, you're not training with Dr. Y. No longer will their riders be associated with shady characters on an extensive basis. Remember, the doping doctors have not only been dispensing products but often working closely with riders throughout the season, so the whole meds/training program works in synch.
  2. It creates a much tighter system of internal surveillance, which if done right should be virtually foolproof (you'd think).
  3. It creates a HUGE psychological barrier against doping! I'm really going way beyond my knowledge and experience here, but it seems like it's infinitely easier for a rider who trains alone or in small groups to give in to doping than it would be when you're more closely connected. Wouldn't you find it much harder to go against a closely-knit system, which all of your teammates have bought into, than the old "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement?

First one: meh. Maybe on some teams riders are sequestered away from the doping docs, but if you can cheat on GerolsteinerCSC, you can cheat anywhere.

Second one: this is the benefit we keep reading about: riders' blood values are recorder and stored away, or sometimes even published online. We're basically talking about longitudinal testing. This is a huge key to interdiction, and though the UCI wants to do it for everyone, there's no reason the teams can't pitch in. Even redundant checking is of value.

Third one: naivete. My guess is that the T-Mobile/High Road/Columbia experiment is working to forge more interdependence, the kind of shared commitment that might deter doping. But again, if you can cheat on Gerol... or worse, CSC, then this is more of a soft deterrent, valuable but not reliable.

There is one last team-imposed deterrent: contractual obligations. The standard fired-if-caught method is pretty universal nowadays, but for some reason it doesn't seem to stop anyone. Perhaps cheaters don't ever expect to be caught, or assume they'll make more money on the juice beforehand for it to be worthwhile. Depending on what the applicable legal system allows, it's possible for teams to include in contracts some sort of liquidated damages, i.e. specific penalties to be paid to the team for, oh, defaming the team brand. With Astana kicked out of the Tour because of its defamed brand, such damages wouldn't seem ridiculous to a judge. If anyone knows what sort of penalties teams are putting in contracts these days, do tell.